March 2, 2024

More alarming than the Kings squandering another late lead Thursday, more concerning than a losing streak that hit 0-3-4 when Florida’s Sam Reinhart scored on a slick backhander with 0.7 seconds left in overtime at Sunrise, Fla., was Kings captain Anze Kopitar’s postgame assessment of the team’s psyche.

“Right now, it feels like we’ve got to play a perfect game,” he told Dennis Bernstein of TheFourthPeriod.com. “Good or pretty good is not good enough right now, so it’ll take a team effort to get out of it.”

There is no such thing as a perfect game in hockey. The ice is slippery, eh? And for the Kings to think they must play flawlessly to win sets them up for more failure, almost excusing a letdown at the next bad penalty, errant pass, or unlucky bounce. Good teams separate themselves from the pack by winning even if they don’t play well. The Kings (20-10-8) have a good amount of talent, but they’re not a good team right now.

They’re halfway through a six-game trip that continues Saturday in Detroit against the Red Wings, who rallied to beat them in a shootout last Thursday in Los Angeles. While the Kings have been getting some loser points through the NHL’s reward for overtime or shootout losses, the Edmonton Oilers have been earning two points on an impressively regular basis: They’ve moved three points behind the Kings for third in the Pacific Division on the strength of a nine-game winning streak.

Second-place Vegas has been struggling and the Kings hold four games in hand on them, but those games will mean nothing if the Kings don’t win them. And, to do that, they apparently must play perfectly.

Team president Luc Robitaille declined to comment on the team’s state. But it’s clear that a promising start to their season has dissolved into a muddled middle. On Dec. 7, after a shutout win at Montreal, the Kings were 16-4-3. Since then, they’re 4-6-5.

“We’re at that point where the line [between] winning and losing is so fine,” coach Todd McLellan told reporters Thursday in Florida. “At the beginning of the year it came easily, now it’s really tough. But everybody, cliches that coaches use and reporters and players, that the adversity will help you later on, well, it’s never any fun when you’re in it, and that’s where the frustration comes from.

“But I like the fact that we are sticking with each other and we’re really digging in, trying to pull ourselves out. If it was going the other way, I’d be concerned.”

The turnaround has to come by efforts from everyone. That includes renewed energy from a fourth line that once was the team’s spark plug, more assertiveness and scoring from $68-million-dollar man Pierre-Luc Dubois, offensive contributions from a defense corps that can and should be supporting the attack, and better decisions from McLellan too.

Kings forward Pierre-Luc Dubois plays against the Philadelphia Flyers in November.

Kings forward Pierre-Luc Dubois plays against the Philadelphia Flyers in November.

(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

After the Kings’ loss to Detroit last week he noted, “Teams are very prepared for us. They have a book on us.” The latest edition of that book says the Kings can’t hold leads and buckle under duress late in games. Pressure them, and they’ll make a mistake or three. That can’t continue.

Despite passionate fans’ calls for McLellan’s head, his job doesn’t seem to be in danger. The Kings are still among the NHL’s top defensive teams, and their penalty killing ranks among the league’s best. They’re not in a terrible position. But McLellan must prove he can steer them out of this slump before it drags them down and out of the top three in their division and an automatic playoff spot.

This is something of a referendum on the performance of general manager Rob Blake too. Blake last summer extended McLellan’s contract by a year to run through 2024-25, the same endpoint of his own contract. McLellan is Blake’s third coach: he inherited John Stevens, fired Stevens in favor of the overmatched Willie Desjardins, and hired McLellan in 2019.

Asked at the time why he thought he’d gotten this coaching hire right, Blake said, “I wanted to make sure that there was somebody that I knew pretty much every situation that was going to occur, I would understand how he would handle it.” McLellan and Blake face a tough situation now. There’s no perfect solution to their woes, just as there are no perfect games. Sliding back to mediocrity is unacceptable after this long rebuild. If Blake and McLellan can’t turn it around, it will be up to the next coach and GM to do it.

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